It is always important to make a good first impression.
In the mid-1990s, I met my best friend and partner while living on a ramshackle old farm that the locals called the “ruins”. This farm needed all manner of chores to keep it from falling down, from daily irrigation to constant fixing.
I was careful when I first got to know my new friend not to display my typical hurry up and relax attitude. She was a person of refinement and grace, which I did my best to respect in all matters. She had been dropped into a homespun life where spring and fall were compressed into frenetic weeks of planting and harvest. Life was a race against the onslaught of nature, who was bent on freezing our crops and pelting us with hell and high water.
Thus I kept her shielded from the reality that refinement and grace were at odds with this place I lived at. Sometimes this was not possible. One of these times occurred during a pump breakdown experience which all ruralites are familiar with. There is a time for the pump to break down, there is a season, turn, turn, turn. Winter is when mice take up shop in the pumphouse, spring is the season when spiders build webs across the pump contacts and summer is when rodents tunnel down into the cistern.
If your well gets a mouse in it, the usual procedure is to pump the well down as far as possible with a high volume sump pump and then pour in a gallon of Clorox and drink bottled water for about a month.
Our well was a three-foot diameter cistern which went down twenty feet. In the middle of the cistern was a second 6-inch pipe extending from above the top of the well water to below the bottom of the cistern by another 20 feet. This center pipe was where the drinking water came from. The pump was mounted three feet down into the cistern, because it had been installed in a hurry without any money to do the job right and buy new pipe and a pressure foot to extend the tube clear to the surface.
The inner pipe was an add-on from a different bad day when the cistern went dry. But in this instance our problems were caused by excessive pasture irrigation which had raised the water table so high that the water level was hovering just below the level of the electric pump, threatening to short circuit the electricity.
Sensing there might be a cool bath down there, two marmots had tunneled into the cistern. Now, if a mouse drowned in the outer cistern, it might go unnoticed, since there is 20 feet of mother earth between the bottom of the cistern and the bottom of the inner intake pipe. But a mouse caught in the inner pipe will make a bad taste that can disflavor the well within a week or two, or if you are a woman, instantaneously. I know this from losing a bet with a woman who said she tasted a mouse in the water.
Well this time, thanks to the last rush job on this well that left the pipe three feet short, the water table was higher than the inner pipe, causing the outer cistern to flood into the inner pipe. When the bad marmot water in the outer cistern mixed into the inner pipe, it caused a bad flavor to appear in the drinking water within one second. I know this because we both tasted it at the same moment. I realize this is a turnoff to read about, nonetheless there are still very good reasons for living in the country and we were fortunate that deer could not dig holes into the cistern.
Pumping the well down turned out to be impossible. Hydrostatic pressure from the ground water quickly brought the water level back up. The solution was simply to raise the pump by three feet, which was long overdue anyway. This was not a simple affair as it involved moving the pump and extending its tubing upward, having a welder extend the inner pipe, installing a pressure foot and dual tubing to the bottom of the well, rewiring the pump and relays, and rebuilding an insulated pumphouse so the whole thing could be kept from freezing in the winter (because when the pump was three feet down the cistern there was no danger of freezing). This required a fair amount of partnership, since the pump house is a couple hundred feet from the house and one person needs to be fiddling with the switches at the pump house while having the data hollered at them by the person reading the pressure gauge at the house. I had been working several days nonstop on this and needed to get back to my regular job. The stress was beginning to show. The veneer of ambience was waning and my partner was increasingly called to the support team.
On the last day of the job, as darkness neared and a cold wind snapped at our collars, we were putting the final touches on the pipe connections. I was in the low box we now referred to as “the pump house”. My partner was handing me tools from outside the pump house. I was working mighty furiously and I was taking some mighty fierce short cuts. To get the pipe over the nozzle without dropping it into the well required holding up the tubing and a hundred pounds or so of water by a rope while softening the end of the pipe with a torch so that it could be slipped over the connector on the bottom of the pump. With the flame in one hand and a screwdriver in the other, I informed my helper that in a few minutes we would be done and that under no circumstances should she let go of the rope that I was about to give her that was holding the contraption from falling down the well. Clearly concerned, she asked if we should get help. I said no. She repeated this several times and reminded me that it looked dangerous. Not wanting her to be worried, I informed her that there was nothing to worry about having done this many times before. She accepted this silently with a look of resignation.
I got to work and brushed a torch across the end of the pipe for about 30 seconds to soften ‘er up, and neatly slipped the end over the connector. I set the torch aside and tightened the screws. With the job complete I stood up with a big smile announced that she could let go of the rope and we could have dinner.
She was very pale. Her mouth was open. Her eyes were wide and staring at the sky. She tried to speak but no words came out. Finally, she pointed at me and a three words escaped her lips, “you’re on fire!”
Flames were roaring away atop my oblivious head. I was on fire, having bent over the flame in the close quarters. No problem. I quickly reached up and patted out the blaze. Really, no big deal. But from that day forward some trust may have eroded from our relationship. I never felt any pain and do not know how much would have ultimately burned before I did feel something. Quite a bit of hair remained but it is not surprising that today I have a small bald spot which was at the epicenter of the wildfire on my head. But hey, we got the job done and survived to see another summer.